Recommended Reading: Herodotus, “The Tale of the Clever Thief”

150727ringWe learn to write by reading, and so I’d like to share with you some of the works of classical literature that have inspired me as a writer. There’s no better place to start than with the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus’ Histories is my favorite book of all time. I re-read Herodotus like some people re-read Tolkien. “The Tale of the Clever Thief” (that’s my own name for it; Herodotus didn’t give that particular story a name of its own) is one of the most delightful parts of the work.

Herodotus is popularly known as the Father of History. He is also known as the Father of Lies. Both titles are appropriate. Herodotus was the first (surviving) author in the western tradition to write about the past in terms of human actions and motivations, not the deeds of gods and heroes. He was also a storyteller who enjoyed spinning a good tale, even if he didn’t think it was true (and some of the things he did think were true are pretty outrageous).

Herodotus’ project was to recount the wars between Persia and Greece, but in doing so he also delved into the history and cultures of many other peoples with whom the Greeks and Persians had contact. Book 2 of the Histories is an account of the geography, culture, and history of Egypt, a land that was as fascinating to the ancient Greeks as it is to us today. In the midst of his history of the kings of Egypt, at 2.121 (Histories book 2, chapter 121), he tells the tale of how king Rhampsinitus was outwitted by a clever thief. (“Rhampsinitus” is a composite figure representing the Ramses kings of the 19th and 20th dynasties. Herodotus’ grasp of Egyptian history is surprisingly good for a foreigner with no command of the Egyptian language, but it is still quite limited.)

If you want to read Herodotus in depth, I strongly recommend The Landmark Herodotus translated by Andrea L. Purvis. It’s an excellent, readable translation with lots of helpful maps and notes. If you just want to read the story of the clever thief you can find it here on Perseus. (You can navigate with the horizontal bars at to the top of the page or the left and right arrows above the text. The story runs from 2.121 to 2.121F)

There is a lot going on in such a short story. In a modern print edition, this story amounts to only a few pages of text, but it is full of incident and excitement. Even in a tale so swiftly told, the characters have believable human motivations: the architect wants to provide for his family; his sons mess up because they are too greedy; the mother wants to bury her son properly; the guards are bored with their duty and happy for some entertainment and a drink. Until we get to the princess in the brothel, which not even Herodotus can explain except as a manifestation of Rhampsinitus’ growing obsession, the characters all act in believable ways.

The skeleton of the story is a one-two-three structure familiar from folklore, in which the antagonist capitulates after being defeated for the third time. Each new challenge is an escalation from the one before. First the king sets a mechanical trap. Then he assigns he task to his guards. Finally he entrusts it to his own daughter. The only place to go from there would have been to catch the thief himself, which Rhampsinitus declines to do. Also note how dead bodies figure throughout the story: first the thief decapitates his own brother, then he steals his brother’s body, finally he tricks the princess with a dead arm. There is also a theme of desire woven through: the brother gets caught because of his desire for treasure; the guards are undone by their desire for wine; and the trick of the princess in the brothel plays both upon sexual desire and the thief’s desire to boast of his accomplishments. All of these connecting structures help hold the story together.

It is also, as far as I know, the world’s earliest locked room mystery. “The Tale of the Clever Thief” is a good lesson in how to do a lot in a very short space.

On an entirely different note, this story makes an interesting case study in the problem of how cultures interact with one another. Herodotus presents this story as an Egyptian tale and places it among the lore he learned from interviewing Egyptian priests. We know enough about Greek and Egyptian literature, however, to guess that this is originally a Greek story, not an Egyptian one. Cunning scoundrels are a staple of Greek legend, like Sisyphus, Autolycus, and Odysseus. Even the god Hermes enjoyed a good bit of sneak-thievery now and then. Greek myth was also thoroughly comfortable with fallible, gullible, even cowardly kings. In Egyptian legend, on the other hand, the king was a god. Egyptian kings did not get outwitted by peasants, and they certainly did not prostitute their royal daughters, then marry them off to commoners. So why does Herodotus present a Greek story as an Egyptian one?

Maybe Herodotus is lying. Perhaps he put this story into the mouths of his Egyptian informants. This seems unlikely. Elsewhere, Herodotus has no problem citing various Greek and Egyptian stories about Egypt. If this were a familiar Greek story, what was to be gained by pretending it was Egyptian?

Another possibility is that Herodotus is not pulling one over on us, but his Egyptian sources pulled one over on him and just fed him a Greek tale which he ignorantly credited to Egypt. This also seems unlikely, for what purpose would be served? It seems an odd sort of prank to play, especially since Herodotus got a fair amount of reasonably accurate information about Egyptian history out of his sources, even if he (or they) tended to condense some things and exaggerate others. In any case, if the story was recognizably Greek, wouldn’t Herodotus, a well-read, well-traveled, and inquisitive Greek, have seen through such a game?

The more interesting and, I think, more likely possibility is that this story, even if it was originally Greek, had become part of Egyptian folklore to the point that both Herodotus and his informants considered it Egyptian.

Greeks and Egyptians had had a long history before Herodotus made his journey to Egypt. By that time, Greeks had been trading with Egypt for over a thousand years. Egyptian kings had hired Greek mercenaries to fight in their armies. Greeks had even been allowed the unique privilege of founding their own city inside Egypt: Naukratis, a panhellenic port of trade. A class of bilingual interpreters existed to facilitate exchange, and trade was key to the special relationship between Greece and Egypt. To put it in its simplest terms, Egypt was rich in food but poor in metals, while Greece was rich in metals (or controlled the trade routes to other places that were) but poor in food.

By the time Herodotus visited Egypt, Naukratis had stood for two hundred years. The evidence of Egyptian cultural influence on Greece was palpable by that time. Greek art, particularly sculpture and architecture, had taken off under Egyptian influence. Egyptian luxury goods were to be seen in Greek markets and the homes of the best families. Even the Egyptian goddess Isis was being worshiped in some Greek cities. Is it so strange to think that some cultural influence might have gone the other way? One of the things people do when they talk to each other is tell stories. After a thousand years of trade and two hundred years of having a Greek colony on the Nile, it seems plausible that some Greek stories had been passed down through enough generations of Egyptians that the people who told them regarded them as Egyptian, no matter how strange they might have been. After all, very few of us go dancing at balls to meet our future spouses any more or ride in horse-drawn coaches attended by footmen, but we regard the story of Cinderella as part of our cultural heritage, not some Franco-German artifact of a past age.

Herodotus’ Histories is full of good stories and you can expect to hear about more of them from me in the future. “The Tale of the Clever Thief,” is the work of a good storyteller at his folkloric best and it’s well worth a read.

Image: Egyptian signet ring, possibly of Akhenaten, possibly modern forgery via Wikimedia (Thebes, currently Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; c. 1340 BCE; gold)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.